Tuesday, September 30, 2014
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The perils of Penelope, Lady Rich
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Emily Van Evera (MPR photo/Karl Gehrke)
The fishbowl existence of the British royals is nothing new. In the late 1500s Lady Penelope Rich was one of the most celebrated figures in the court of Elizabeth the First. While her talent and beauty made her renowned, her uncompromising nature eventually brought disfavor and a tragic end. Acclaimed early music soprano and Duluth native Emily Van Evera tells the story of Penelope through music in her new CD, "My Lady Rich."

St. Paul, Minn. — Lady Penelope Rich lived with a degree of freedom that was unusual for women at the end of the sixteenth century. Her strength, passion and integrity was not only noticed by her contemporaries, but also, four centuries later, by Minnesota-born early music singer Emily Van Evera.

"She was clearly an exceptional woman," Van Evera says. "She was a very outspoken, smart, attractive, charismatic person."

Emily Van Evera has put together a CD that tells the compelling story of Lady Penelope Rich through music that was mostly written either for or about her. Considered the most beautiful woman in the court of Elizabeth I, paintings of Lady Rich show a woman with red hair and dark, penetrating eyes. A pun-filled French song on the CD includes the lines, "Your fine golden hair is not as rich as that of the lovely Rich, And Europe does not deserve as much as our Penelope."

Emily Van Evera grew up in Duluth, but has lived in England for the past two decades, where she has established a career as one of the top early music performers. She was first encouraged to sing this repertoire by a college instructor who she says was crazy about renaissance music.

Van Evera says what fascinates her about early music is the question of how it might have sounded and been sung.

"We know from singing traditions all over the world that human voices can be used in tremendously different ways depending what the local aesthetic is," Van Evera explains. "It's not that the larynx is any different. It's just that the voice is a really versatile thing and there's no reason to think that they sang in the same way that classically trained singers 300 years later do."

Emily Van Evera was introduced to the story of Lady Penelope Rich by lutenist Christopher Morrongiello, who plays on her new CD. She says she was totally drawn into the life of this woman described as a "heart-stealing goddess" who was near the center of events in the court of Queen Elizabeth I.

"She was the sister to the Earl of Essex, who was the Queen's favorite companion, though it ended rather badly and he was executed," Van Evera says. "She was famously smart and musically talented. She was a good singer and lutenist and many composers and the poets of the day wrote music and poetry for or dedicated to her. In some ways you could say we owe the Elizabethan and Shakespearean sonnets to her. Sir Phillip Sidney, who came a generation before Shakespeare, kicked off the whole vogue for English sonnet writing when he fell in love with Penelope and wrote over one hundred sonnets to her when she was 18."

Penelope's father was fond of Philip Sidney and it was his wish that Sydney would marry his daughter, but after her father's death she was matched with a wealthier man.

"Penelope's father was deeply in debt and her guardians wanted to take care of it," Van Evera says. "Against her will, they married Penelope off to Lord Robert Rich, an older, rather nasty, man who was doing well. He solved the family's financial problems, but made Penelope rather unhappy. She protested against marrying him even at the wedding ceremony."

Penelope didn't love the course, selfish Lord Rich and he didn't love her. Still, they had five children together, but she fell in love with a talented and handsome young man who was her husband's opposite, Charles Blount, who later became Lord Mountjoy. Despite her marriage to Lord Rich, the two lived together openly and their relationship was generally approved in the Elizabethan royal court.

"Musicians and poets wrote about this love," Van Evera says. "One of the pieces on the CD is by William Byrd and expresses her unhappiness and hints at the fortune that is starting to smile on her. It was written around the time she was married to Lord Rich, but had met Mountjoy. They later began to have a family together. She had children by Lord Rich and then had five children with Lord Mountjoy."

Lord Rich apparently tolerated his wife's affair with Lord Mountjoy, but once she was no longer politically useful to him, he agreed to a divorce.

Lady Penelope Rich and Lord Mountjoy then married, but their troubles weren't over. Queen Elizabeth's successor, King James the First, ruled that a divorced woman could not remarry while her husband was alive.

Suddenly their relationship, which was celebrated when Penelope was still married to Lord Rich was now criticized as an "ungodly match."

"This was one of the great tragedies," Van Evera says. "Clearly their love and devotion for one another was huge and Mountjoy wanted them to be married and have their union. But you couldn't remarry. It wasn't allowed. You could be divorced, but that was it."

Lord Mountjoy was unable to persuade the king that the marriage was theologically legitimate and fell ill and died only a year after he married Penelope.

"He became ill almost out of what they would call melancholy and we would call depression," Van Evera explains. "They were treated so badly after getting married. It was sort of the whole British tabloid experience of being really torn down publicly and treated badly for getting married, which seems to paradoxical to us. She died not long after, again it seems to me, of a broken heart. I suppose I was drawn into that partly because the last group of pieces on the CD is a whole song cycle written for Penelope for her to mourn Lord Mountjoy. They're very stirring in their expression of the injustice they suffered for loving one another."

Lady Penelope Rich died at the age of 44, dishonored and buried with a gravestone that simply read "A Lady Devereux."

There are some thirty songs on Emily Van Evera's new CD, "My Lady Rich." She says she's surprised no one had collected the songs inspired by this tragic figure before. Van Evera says that even though the project is finished, she continues to be fascinated by Lady Rich's life.

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